I’ve been meaning to write something about recent developments in the use of the word ‘literally’, and was finally prompted to do so by an article on the subject by Christopher Muther on boston.com (via the Society of Editors newsletter). It’s interesting to note that the phenomenon of using ‘literally’ to add emphasis to a statement exists elsewhere than Australia – presumably it’s common across the English-speaking world; this, however, does not excuse its loathsomeness.
In Australia, sporting commentators are literally the worst offenders. Footballers are ‘literally on fire’, horses ‘literally fly’, an athlete is ‘literally jumping out of his skin’, teams ‘crush the opposition … literally!’ The logical reaction to hearing that a footballer is literally on fire would be to call the fire brigade; seeing a flying horse should prompt a call to David Attenborough; sportspeople shedding their epidermis and reducing their opponents to a pulp should result in a lot of very painful hospital visits. But perhaps the best example I’ve noticed of late is political – it’s portly former federal immigration minister Amanda Vanstone’s statement (ABC ONLINE, 2006, cited in the Macquarie Dictionary entry for ‘literally’): “ … I can assure you we are literally bending over backwards to take into account the concerns raised by colleagues”. The mind literally boggles.
It seems a very strange linguistic convolution to use a word that means ‘actually’ or ‘in a literal sense’ to mean the reverse, i.e. metaphorically or figuratively. The upshot? Don’t use a word if you don’t know its meaning.